Ray Johnson Please Add to & Return
In the late fifties, Ray Johnson (Detroit, 1937 – New York, 1995) started sending his friends and fellow artists a series of missives with the following instructions: "Please add to and return". His correspondence consisted of modified newspaper clippings, drawings with instructions, postcards and fragments of collages. It was the start of what would later be known as mail art. Ray Johnson had managed to create an alternative system for the diffusion of his works, challenging concepts such as the museum institution and rebelling against the bourgeois notion of art that has traditionally been rooted in the idea of the finished work, private property and commercial value.
Ray Johnson. Please Add to and Return was the first retrospective exhibition in Spain on "the most famous of unknown artists", as The New York Times journalist Grace Glueck once called him.
As well as his mail art works, the exhibition brought together a large selection of the collages that Ray Johnson exhibited in different galleries during his lifetime, and a previously unseen series of unfinished collages that turned up after his death in the Locus Valley (Long Island) home where he had withdrawn into self-exile in 1968.
The North American artist Ray Johnson (Detroit, 1927 – New York, 1995) is one of the most unknown yet most influential artists of his generation. This exhibition, the first to be dedicated to the artist in Spain, presents a retrospective of his collages and mailings.
At the end of the 1940s, Ray Johnson studied painting under the tutelage of Josef Albers at Black Mountain College. Here he was to make the acquaintance of Bill de Kooning, Richard Lippold, Merce Cunningham and John Cage. He later moved to New York where, in the mid-1950s, he abandoned painting in search of a new mode of expression. He cut up his abstract canvases and began composing collages, which, in turn, were to become the building blocks for more complex pieces in which the fragments were strewn with images from popular culture. His creations included images of Elvis Presley, James Dean, Shirley Temple and Marilyn Monroe, among others, in a manner that anticipated the imaginary Andy Warhol would use in the 1960s. Noteworthy among his first collages are the "moticos", irregularly shaped panels that constituted his critique of the abstract rules of the triangle and that he would recycle throughout his career.
It was also during the 1950s that, while continuing with collage, Ray Johnson began exploring the possibilities of Mail Art. He gradually built up a network of contacts with whom he exchanged ideas and artworks. By way of this network, he mailed an enormous quantity of material, including postcards, fragments of his collages, drawings with instructions ("please add to & return…"), found objects and annotated newspaper clippings. In 1968, this correspondence network was consolidated as the "New York Correspondence School", which was to become the clearing house for a web of artistic communication that would eventually spread across the globe.
Ray Johnson's paper artworks are based on linking images and ideas to generate new meaning from juxtapositions he created and disseminated. On many occasions, and particularly in the case of collages, a process of overlaying and reworking reinforced these juxtapositions; therefore, most of his collages are signed with multiple dates. He also had great interest in the semiotic systems and codes created by these collages. Therefore, plays on words are frequently encountered in his work, which brought him to create new terms. Institutional criticism and an ambivalent relationship with the world of art are also palpable in his oeuvre throughout his professional trajectory.
In addition to Mail Art and his work in collage, performances constitute an important part of his work. In 1961 he initiated the "Nothings" series, performances conceived in response to the work of Allan Kaprow and Fluxus, and continued to stage them throughout his life.
The exhibitions Ray Johnson. Please Add to & Return and John Cage and Experimental Art. The Anarchy of Silence are simultaneously on view at the MACBA, affording an opportunity to explore the relations between both artists. In the case of Ray Johnson, frequent reference is made to the figure and work of John Cage. His work reflects an in-depth interest in the idea of chance applied to the artistic approach developed by Cage.
Curator: Alex Sainsbury in collaboration with Chus Martínez
Production: Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona